I’m a Loser, Baby

A few years ago, I wrote a post about youth sports, that turned into a magazine article about horrible sports parents, and I swore for the upteenth time to be a better parent and just enjoy what my kids do, for the joy itself. I’ve mostly succeeded.

It’s a given that sports parents, particularly travel sports parents, take things way too seriously, present company included. If we needed to be reminded that sometimes we as parents and coaches are the absolute worst, all one need do is read the local paper.

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The news this past week from the Tennessee District 7-AAA consolation game, where both teams were eventually disqualified for purposefully trying to tank the game in order to draw a weaker set of opponents, aptly demonstrates our priorities set wrong, when we teach that winning is the only thing that matters.

Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. Growing up as an athlete, I was “recruited” by private schools to come and play “on scholarship”, as were any number of athletes I grew up with. We even had an “undocumented” fifteen year old play on our twelve year-old football league team, because our coach couldn’t “find” his birth certificate.

Happened then. Happens now.

When my oldest son was playing travel hockey as a ten-year old, we played another travel team that needed to lose in order to get a favorable draw in the next round of our tournament. They suited up their defensemen as forwards, their forwards as defensemen, and played a goalie who had never worn gear before. Ten year olds. And they got away with it, because we only learned of it after the fact when we overheard the other team’s parents laughing over it. I’m sure they are growing up to be swell.

We’re under the mistaken impression that when we sell our souls, it happens in one huge, obvious transaction. In reality, we sell our souls a tiny piece at a time; every time we demonstrate that the rules are for suckers, that fairness is negotiable, and it’s OK as long as you don’t get caught.

Just look at our current Super Bowl “champs.”

We tell ourselves that it’s OK to cheat, because this is low-consequence youth sports.

But are these really the lessons you want your children to remember?

You get your kids for such a vanishingly small amount of time. Don’t let them remember you for how well you were able to screw the other guy.

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Reflections on Paradise Past

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Here in Central Arkansas, we’re getting what passes as a “snow” day around these parts (to a chorus of snickers from – well – anywhere else in the world that gets actual snowfall).

It does give me some time to pause and reflect on how in days past my family spent our Februarys.

From the mid-nineteen eighties, until my oldest son started first grade, we spent the shortest month on the year traveling as far south as we could drive – to the Florida Keys.

Some years, it was for only a week. Most years, it was for the entire month. Nevertheless, we always looked forward to getting away to Paradise, if only for a little while, while the rest of the country was still locked in the throes of Winter.

We listened to Funky Cold Medina. Learned of the liberation of Kuwait from a small hotel TV. Watched the media circus following Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction from down there. Saw and heard the aftermath of Dale Earnhardts tragic death.

Our Valentines Days had unbelievably beautiful sunsets. Periodic temperature dips into the forties that felt sub-zero, in housing designed for the subtropics. Key Lime Pie. Plumbers that only showed up on days too windy to be out on the water.

Fishing. Reading. Eating.

Being.

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It’s been a good ten years since we spent our last February in Islamorada. Another life ago, it almost seems.

These days we’re anchored to the dictates of the school year. Homework. Career. Life.

Yet, we still long for those warm, lazy, low-sun winter days, spent near the 24th parallel.

Someday.

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I can’t tell you how many Februarys I’ve told myself that I would never scrape another windshield. I think about it every time I hurriedly search for my ice scraper on dark Winter mornings.

Someday.

Its hard not to feel the tug of unbelievably bright clear skies , achingly blue green water, and the doldrums of island time – when all around is the cold grey grip of the now, and normalcy.

Someday.

The cold has me replaying those memories so carefully packed away.

The time we went out on the reef in a small bass boat, designed for a fresh-water lake and not the open ocean, and lived to tell the tale. Evenings looking for the flash of green as the sun dipped below the horizon. Mentally counting the days until next year.

Just another snow day.

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CapEx vs. OpEx – A Primer from Middle-Aged Man

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Back in the day, there were a series of skits on Saturday Night Live called “Middle-Aged Man.” It featured Mike Meyers, as a middle-aged dude who’s superpowers were things like understanding how to jump start a car, knowing where all of his appliance warranties were, and understanding what “Escrow” actually meant.

Having to learn what “CapEx” and “OpEx” are doesn’t automatically mean you’ll become Middle-Aged Man Person. But it may mean the difference between being able to effectively chart a strategic, sustainable spending plan for your department, area, or business – and leaving money on the table, or – worse – squandering opportunity.

First: some definitions.

CapEx, or capital expenditure, is a business expense incurred to create future benefit (i.e., acquisition of assets that will have a useful life beyond the tax year). For example, a business might buy new assets, like buildings, machinery, or equipment, or it might upgrade existing facilities so their value as an asset increases.

OpEx, or operational expenditure, is the money the business spends in order to turn inventory into throughput. Operating expenses also include depreciation of plants and machinery which are used in the production process.

Source: Diffen.com

Seems straightforward enough. But… so what? Why does this even matter to me?

Well, it matters because understanding the differences between these two methods of expenses separates the acolytes from the masters.

Consider it this way –

OpEx is typically what most of us think about when we hear the word “budgets.” OpEx represents costs like payroll, materials, what we pay vendors, healthcare costs, benefits. Essentially, the cost of doing business. It’s like writing checks out of your bank account; living within your means.

CapEx, on the other hand, is supposed to be for “out of band”, long-term spending projects. Typically, these are supposed to be strategic, and far lasting in nature. Capital expenditures are typically paid out of cash reserves, or issuing bond debt, or drawing upon a line of credit. In effect, this type of spending is like getting a second mortgage on your house, or using your credit card to make purchases (I’ll revisit the differences in capital spending funding methods in a future post).

Problems in keeping your spending priorities in order (and expenditures types clearly defined and separated) usually begin to creep in when your revenue stream is disrupted; you have a drop off in incoming cash, or an unanticipated drop in customers, or the economy simply tanks beneath you. Your costs don’t go away, and you’re now challenged with “keeping the doors open” or “coasting through the downturn.”

The first knee-jerk reaction might be to blindly start chopping away at costs, battening down the hatches, counting the paper clips.

Or, shudder the thought , moving critical OpEx expenditures into the CapEx column (Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!).

But this is the corporate equivalent of buying Pizza for lunch, by drawing on your home’s second mortgage – you’re paying for that Pizza over the next thirty years, rather than at the end of the month with your paycheck. Not smart.

Look – I’m not saying that you should never move OpEx spending over to CapEx. Sometimes, you must, because it literally means the very survival of your business (which is also one of your first early warning signs that the biz is in serious doo-doo, like buying groceries with your credit cards rather than your paycheck). The most immediate danger in treating true operational expenditures as capital expenditures, is that it masks the actual costs of what it takes to run your operation, so that you can no longer clearly and transparently gauge – or report – how well your business unit is really doing. But, more than that, this is simply not a sustainable model of operations. You won’t be able to fund your operations indefinitely this way.

Because there will always be a day of reckoning.

Whenever I take on a new assignment involving annual spending budgets, one of the first action items I undertake is to make sure that OpEx items are all properly accounted for, where they need to be accounted for: compensation, contracts, materials. Then, I look at the identified CapEx accounts, to make sure that there aren’t any hidden line items there, masking themselves as long-term assets when they’re actually short term (and usually, variable) liabilities.

Again – why does this matter?

Because: with CapEx expenditures, they are long lasting by nature and by definition, and usually can’t be simply wiped away with drastic austerity measures. You have to earn your way out of them – or default upon them. That’s it.

With your OpEx liabilities, you can cut back on production, reduce your work force, decrease your spending – in short, this is where you can make a significant difference in your balance sheet with some level of immediacy.

And people still wonder why more folks don’t want to get into an administrative position.

Understanding what CapEx and OpEx can mean for your company, and your effectiveness as an administrator, isn’t sexy in the least.

But it will make you a grown up.

Just ask Middle-Aged Man.

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Is innovation under the CIO worth funding?

This morning, John Dodge of the Enterprise CIO Forum asks this question: Is innovation under the CIO worth funding?

I’ll let John’s explanation of the question stand on its own, and freely recognize that his question originates from a CIO-centric publication, catering to CIOs, who are interested in all things CIO. Duly noted.

But – to my grizzled eyes, I’m not sure that this is even the right question – or questions – to ask.

Why is innovation within an organization to be limited solely to the span of control of the CIO? Or for that matter, any single business unit?

Perhaps I have the same problem with the funding of an area with the stated purpose of innovation that I have with having a Chief Innovation Officer, that’s somehow supposed to magically transform their organization.

Everyone in the enterprise – from the lowliest staffer to the top of the food chain – should be invested in doing what they do; better, faster, ever-more efficient. Setting up funding under the CIO specifically for innovation? We should set up budgets for “serendipity” and “luck” while we’re at it.

If you’ve paid attention over the last several years in the IT space, you’ve certainly heard the term bimodal IT (Can’t go to a Gartner presentation without seeing at least one slide with this on it) – that is, the conceit that IT really operates in a lets-keep-the-lights-on-and-the-servers-working mode, and an agile (the fleet of foot kind and methodology kind) mode, where innovative thinking is encouraged to exploit new opportunities as they present themselves in the new digital age.

In truth, the world is not this straightforward. Business is intrinsically multi-modal and multi-valent.

And innovation – even, and especially, technological innovation – is no longer under the sole purview of your IT organization.

Why do we need to maintain racks and racks of servers in our enterprise, when Infrastructure-as-a -Service (IaaS) is commoditized, safe, and increasingly reliable – especially if our main line of business is not technology driven to begin with?

Perhaps that is a question we should be asking. It’s certainly innovative.

More and more, internal departments no longer wait upon IT to deliver technology solutions, when they can get what they need in a ready-to-buy Software-as-a-Service offering. Where does IT fit into this new landscape?

That sounds like a question to be asked.

Who gets to innovate is not a funding question – it’s an existential one.

And so, if someone asks: is innovation under the CIO worth funding? The answer is a resounding “no.”

The tl;dr version of my argument is this – if you’re asking whether innovation as a concept is something to be carved out of a single business unit, rather than asking the larger existential question about the overall role of innovation in your organization – then you’re absolutely asking the wrong question.

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Higher Ed Tech Talent: Get ‘em, Keep ‘em – If You Can

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Acquiring top people – and keeping them happy – in Academic Computing is not for wimps.

For starters, higher education salaries for technology jobs (in general) are typically lower than private industry. And, for private higher ed institutions, it’s an even worse comparison (perhaps somewhat counter-intuitive, especially if you’re currently writing checks to such an institution).

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that when a higher ed IT director or CIO goes into the market for new talent, they compete not solely with other higher ed institutions, but with all surrounding businesses affording technology employment. So, while your admission director competes only against other schools when they go looking for new counselors, you’re up against startups, banks, insurance companies – heck, practically anyone with a data center (or even an internet connection, for that matter) that can offer a competitive salary to your prospects.

If this set of market realities weren’t enough to discourage the most stalwart hiring committee, add in the additional prospect of luring talent to a beautiful, bucolic small liberal arts college located in the hinterland – miles away from amenities, convenient transportation, entertainment options, or infrastructure.

I think that about sets the stage for the challenges posed.

Daunting? Yes. Impossible? No.

I would be a cruel, cruel person if I didn’t offer some glimmer of hope on how to navigate these difficult recruiting waters.

Successful recruiting – and retention – can be done; but it takes an intentional professional development strategy, and it takes active participation in having an open and honest dialog with your staff and reports and their career development.

During my time as a CIO in a small town (pop. 60,000) in the middle of Arkansas, we recruited within a local talent pool that consisted of three local colleges, a small handful of large technology employers, and with the largest “big” (well, BIG for a state with 2 million citizens) city located some 30 miles plus distant.

Here’s what we did.

Get ‘em While They’re Young

Truth be told, our number one strategy for acquiring the best and the brightest was to hire people right out of school. In fact, for many of our skill positions, this was the only way we could for specific needed talents and be even close to competitive, salary-wise. This strategy has the natural benefit of being able to also be the first out of the gate to shape a young person’s professional outlook and career, without the baggage of previous habit (good or bad).

Sell ‘em on the Benefits of the Academic Life

Let’s be honest. There is more than a grain of truth to Laurie Ruettimann’s assertion that companies pay employees in culture when they can’t pay them cash. That still doesn’t mean that the attractiveness of the academic life – usually solid health care and lifestyle wellness benefits, relative low pressure work environment, ample down / “soak” time, intellectually and culturally stimulating events and activities, generous and predictable project lead times – aren’t great selling points to prospective employees. There is much to love about working on a college campus. Sell it up.

Reality Hits

OK. You’re able to snag a young ‘un or two. You’ve lured someone looking for “serenity” on a college campus. But now you’re hit with a request for skills, systems, and talents that you don’t have.

And you can’t write a check for.

What do you do?

Training is Not an Option – It is a Necessity for Survival

Sad but true – training – and travel for training – are often the very first things axed when the institution’s leadership comes knocking, looking for low hanging budget savings.

But here is where you earn your pay – you have to fight, literally fight – to keep training alive.

Because without it, you’re simply biding time until the talent you want to keep have walked out the door. Because the talent that can, will.

Training is actually your very best tool for keeping employees engaged and excited. It allows them to envision where they will be a few steps down the road, because they can see themselves becoming more valuable to their institution.

Truly, the more skills your talent acquires on the job certainly makes it easier to walk out the door for greener pastures. But it also promotes trust, because it says that you value that person’s future, and are interested in them as individuals with ambitions and goals that you are tangibly invested in seeing them achieve.

Putting off training and travel for training for anything other than “we can’t pay the bills” is foolhardy, because it virtually guarantees apathy and distrust in any other rah-rahing you may do to try and rally the troops.

But the most obvious benefit to having a strong and dedicated commitment to training, is that it is often the only avenue remaining to budget constrained organizations to obtain new skills and master emerging technologies.

Know – and Care – About Your People

I’m not going to ask anyone to go out and hug a tree, or adopt a puppy.

But if you truly want to develop a strong and cohesive team, and have any hope of keeping that team together, it begins and ends with understanding your people, and caring about how they are developing as people and professionals.

You don’t have to go and create “forced fun” departmental outings. You don’t have to hold impromptu celebrations for every life event.

But you do have to care, and show you care, through authentic actions.

Know when their parents are undergoing a health crisis. Be aware that their living situation is in transition. If you understand challenges facing your talent outside of work, it should make your workplace communications more empathetic and compassionate. There. I said it. Compassionate.

Because, if you truly want your people to care about their jobs, you start by being a mensch yourself, and demonstrating care for the people you oversee.

You don’t have to be creepy, you don’t have to be intrusive, and you can remain professional.

Like Mayor Koch of New York once famously said, “I can explain this to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

Be a Mentor

You didn’t hatch into your present position fully formed, even though we all tend to think that we got to where we are by pure dint of will, and the unshakable belief that we are intrinsically talented and indispensable to our organization.

Someone – or an army of someones – along the way recognized your nascent ability, and took a risk on helping you up. Training you. Developing you as a professional.

And now, it is your turn.

I’m not simply talking about taking your direct reports under your wing, either. Very few of us haven’t been where almost all of our workers are in their jobs. There is no position within your span of control where you cannot apply some form of mentorship to good effect.

Having a good mentor relationship with one or more employees forms some of the strongest bonds within an organization. And, in turn, great mentees will go on to be great mentors as they move through your team.

Wish ‘em Well When They Go

When your top performers go – and they will – you wish them all the best. And you mean it.

Because they are going out to work with your competitors. They become a parent of a student that will come to your school. They become a key vendor.

Or they become your next boss.

But beyond that – the team that remains behind will see how you react to their colleagues leaving, and hear how you talk about those that left. If they see that you denigrate employees no longer around to defend themselves, it doesn’t take a large amount of imagination for them to project how you might discuss them when they are no longer about.

Transition and leaving are part of the gig. Celebrate those that move on, so that those remain can aspire to remain.

What Else?

Gee. I wish I knew.

Because I’m still learning after 30 years in the business.

I’ve hired people that I was immediately sorry I hired. I’ve celebrated decades of work with colleagues to whom I gave their first professional job. I’ve fired people I knew didn’t deserve to be let go, but who I could no longer afford to keep.

If I had to impart anything approaching a “magic bullet” for academic tech talent hiring and retention, it’s this: be open in your communications to talent and prospects, be honest in your assessments of career development and advancement opportunities, and be respectful of individuals under your charge.

Your best defense is to know your market. Know your job. Understand your talent. Make their success your success.

Be a person.

Everything else flows from there.

Image credit: StartupCollective.

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The Tyranny of the Functionary

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If you have managed a group of people for any period of time, you’ve run across the phenomena I like to call the “Tyranny of the Functionary.”

The buying manager who withholds approval on purchasing because of a laundry list of vendor rules. The tech manager who adheres to a monoculture ecosystem unwilling to consider other alternatives. The creative in your company who refuses to do as a customer wants, hiding behind design guidelines. The “indispensable man” who simply flat out refuses assignments that they don’t want to do.

All of these scenarios have the following in common:

  • Your company’s policies and guidelines are being used to shirk or avoid work, rather than advance your company’s mission of service to your customers;
  • The person is in a bottleneck or gatekeeper role; and,
  • The person is perceived to be irreplaceable, either by themselves or their direct supervisors.

Sadly, these are the people that are keeping your enterprise from being great. And you’re letting them.

In 99% of the cases above, these “human productivity inhibitors” are knowledgeable, capable, and competent. They simply want to do things their way, how they want to do it, and when they want to do it, regardless of the larger enterprise priorities in play.

And they don’t imagine themselves as inhibitors at all. In fact, most of them will tell anyone interested that the place couldn’t run without them. Sometimes, this is even true.

Think about how many meetings you have been in in your career where that “one person” sidetracks every discussion and decision, on some procedural matter or precedent. The person who is always throwing up objections.

Dr. No.

It is your responsibility as a leader, to apply some long overdue institutional Drano to your organization’s productivity blockage.

How does one go about doing this?

  • By making sure everyone in your organization understands your larger institutional mission, and applying that to every decision, from the color of your drapes to what markets you’re going to compete in. When your “tyrannical functionary” rears their head on process or procedure, apply this larger institutional litmus test to the contretemps, and push your way through.
  • By going into every meeting prepared and armed with the best facts at your disposal.
  • By making sure that you have a team of cross-trained and cross functional talent in your organization, with no single point of failure living in one person’s irreplaceable domain knowledge.

Ultimately, dealing with the tyranny of the functionary comes down to a matter of will: your will to do what’s right for the organization, against the will of the individual(s) in your company holding things up.

Persuade them. Train them. Reassign them. Fire them.

You’re the leader. Lead.

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